Deal with itTo deny the validity of past agreements because ‘circumstances are now different’ is disingenuous
Politicians often evoke very strong emotions, either adulatory or the opposite. Think of any of the top honchos of the parties running the country and you get the point. But there are some political figures who are viewed with, if not outright respect, at least an absence of animosity that can cut across party lines and extends to the public at large. The late Bhim Bahadur Tamang of the Nepali Congress was one such personality although the general regard sprang mainly from the simplicity of his life and his scholarly disposition.
I would venture that Pradeep Gyawali of the CPN-UML is another such leader. Almost all descriptions of Gyawali begin with his soft spoken nature, sincerity of heart, and intellectual bent. It is to his credit that despite being a major player in the hurly-burly of Nepali politics for a decade, he has managed to steer clear of any kind of controversy. So, when Gyawali recently spoke about the irrelevance of past agreements in the context of the new constitution, one would like to pay a little more heed than usual.
Dishonest negotiating partner
In an interview, Gyawali said: “Past agreements have to be borne in mind but many of those have become irrelevant now. Some agreements were reached to resolve a problem immediate to the then situation, and contradict each other...For instance, the agreements with United Madhesi Front and Tharu Struggle Committee are contradictory...The agreements with the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities and the Brahman Chhetri Society or Khas Arya Society are at odds with each other.”
He is right. Between July 2007, when the government started the process of signing agreements left, right and centre with identity movements, and the end of the Constituent Assembly (CA) I in May 2012, 43 such accords were reached—multiples times with some groups. Obviously, with such a large number of disgruntled parties not to mention the five different interlocutors representing the five different governments we had over that period, any kind of consistent stance is difficult, especially since the negotiations were held one-on-one, not collectively.
To go back to Gyawali’s point, there was indeed a multiplicity of threads to the agreements. Some have been fulfilled such as the declaration that Nepal would be a federal republic as per the understanding with the United Democratic Madhesi Front. But there were also provisions that were disregarded over the years such as the agreement with the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities stipulated that the principle of inclusion would be adhered to in the candidature to the first-past-the-post part of the election and that a state restructuring commission would include experts representing all marginalised groups and regions;
and the one with the Chhetri National Movement Committee about setting up a working group to study the demand that Chhetris be listed among indigenous nationalities. Of course, there was going to be no representation from the Federal Limbuwan State Council in the state restructuring commission that was part of the agreement with that group, and neither are we aware if another round of talks were held with the Madhesi Mukti Tigers to discuss the ‘other demands’ of the Tigers.
But the fact remains that these were agreements reached by the Government of Nepal representing more or less by the same parties in power today, and to deny their validity because ‘circumstances are now different’ is disingenuous at best. It is not as if the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal with its completely different conception of Nepal and its society had come to power, or that there had been a change in the regime. Either the government has to review each of these agreements carefully and find convincing reasons for why it has failed to fulfil all these conflicting demands—not an impossible task actually—or it has to admit that it is not an honest negotiating partner, which is what the agitating groups are beginning to view it as. As Roy J. Lewicki et al point out the obvious in their classic, Negotiation, “Negotiators frequently overlook the fact that, although unethical or expedient tactics may get them what they want in the short run, these same tactics typically lead to diminished effectiveness in the long run.”
The current attitude of the major parties is akin to what another classic, Getting to YES by Roger Fisher and William Ury, says should be avoided. It gives the example of South Africa where “white moderates were trying at one point to abolish the discriminatory pass laws. How? By meeting in an all-white parliamentary committee to discuss proposals. Yet, however meritorious those proposals might prove, they would be insufficient, not necessarily because of their substance, but because they would be the product of a process in which no blacks were included. The blacks would hear, ‘We superior whites are going to figure out how to solve your problems.’…Even if the terms of an agreement seem favorable, the other side may reject them simply out of a suspicion born of their exclusion from the drafting process. Agreement becomes much easier if both parties feel ownership of the ideas.”
By insisting that the current draft is the best that the three parties can come up with, that it addresses the demands of everyone, that the constitution is open to amendment at a later stage, and that regardless of the opposition to the continuation of the constitution-drafting process, this is what the country is going to get, we are definitely on the path of an exclusionary process.
What is difficult to fathom is why all the four parties in power speak almost by rote about the need to have the constitution ready immediately or else, ominously, all the gains so far could vanish into this air. The cast of characters has changed little since the 2006 political transformation. It used to be the Congress, UML and the CPN-Maoist who called the shots then. It was the same three parties joined by the Madhesi forces during the tenure of the first CA. And, it is still the trio in charge of our destiny today, albeit with Bijay Kumar Gachchhedar and his Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic as an appendage. And, unless these parties are preparing to change their colours, again, not an impossibility, there cannot be any going back on the rights that have secured over the years—at least not permanently—no matter what anyone wants to believe or wants believed.
Of course, one sees the logic of a possible threat to the country in chaos with so many imponderables such as the rise of a strongman or outright interference by external powers or the greater likelihood of unending political instability. But our political parties have weathered many such setbacks in the past, and came out the stronger for it. To claim at this juncture that events may spiral out of their control if we do not have a constitution right now belies a lack of confidence among these parties that they are actually of all the people and for all the people.